An ad hominem is a logical fallacy wherein one attacks the person presenting an argument instead of criticizing the argument itself. For example:
Person A: I’m against affirmative action because it disproportionately benefits minorities who come from wealthier backgrounds instead of helping people of all colors from poorer backgrounds.
Person B: Clearly you hate people of color and are a bad person, so I don’t need to listen to anything you say.
Rather than making a counterargument against Person A’s argument, Person B has refused to engage, making the conversation basically useless for both parties. Ad hominem attacks are bad. Don’t use them.
It’s important to recognize, though, that not all arguments that upset you are arguments ad hominem. Sometimes, thoughtful criticism can hurt your feelings, especially if you’re not particularly tough-minded.
Paul Griffiths, a Duke Divinity School Professor, was accused by his Dean of making an argument ad hominem, as well as expressing bigotry, as a result of the following email regarding racial equity training hosted by the school:
Dear Faculty Colleagues,
I’m responding to Thea’s exhortation that we should attend the Racial Equity Institute Phase 1 Training scheduled for 4-5 March. In her message she made her ideological commitments clear. I’ll do the same, in the interests of free exchange.
I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty. When (if) it gets beyond that, its illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show. Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. (Re)trainings of intellectuals by bureaucrats and apparatchiks have a long and ignoble history; I hope you’ll keep that history in mind as you think about this instance.
We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. Our mission is to thnk, read, write, and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste. This training is a waste. Please, ignore it. Keep your eyes on the prize.
To the cautious reader, there is no sign of an argument ad hominem in this email, nor is there a trace of bigoted thinking. Griffiths harshly criticizes the practice of racial equity training and the assumptions that underlie such training, but his criticism is focused on the practice, not on the people promoting the practices.
Given the emphasis placed on feelings and personal experience, nowadays, we should expect more and more people to be accused of ad hominem attacks merely for expressing controversial opinions. The SJW trope of claiming that someone’s speech “invalidates my experience” or “denies my right to exist” is already a variant of this. The use of the term “ad hominem” just gives the claim a veneer of intellectual plausibility. That is, until you actually look at what has been said.
In academic settings (and most other settings), our focus should be on the content of speech, and not on the response that the speech might provoke. To be sure, Griffiths’s colleagues who disagreed with him openly on the racial equity training might have felt talked down to by his email. They may very well have been offended. But “offensive speech” is not a meaningful category, because offensiveness is inherently subjective.
What’s far more important is that Griffiths’s email put forth claims about the nature of equity training and its relationship to the mission of Duke Divinity School, and that those claims are worth engaging with, particularly if you disagree with them. When someone makes a claim that upsets you, you need to think about why you’re upset. It might be that the claim is egregiously wrong, in which case, you should explain why. Or it could be that you yourself are standing on shaky ground, and the fact that someone else is speaking out in opposition to your ideological agenda is scary for you, as your position is backed primarily by ideological platitudes and unverifiable assertions.
I admire Griffiths for sticking to his guns through this whole thing. It can’t be easy to be an academic in this sort of environment, in which good-faith intellectual discussion is declared to be offensive when it challenges the prevailing commitment to equity-at-all-costs. By the grace of God, more like him will pop up and keep our universities from imploding.